With a degree in studio art and 19 years in the graphic design business, Laurel now paints full-time and teaches at the Contemporary Austin Art School. She is an avid plein air painter and has had a lifelong love of nature. Nature now inspires her to contemplate the landscape and use it as a springboard for her work.
Art Notes: What is it that the landscape, as a subject, gives you as an artist?
Laurel Daniel:Painting the landscape, as a subject, gives me the ability (and the excuse!) to observe nature firsthand, with all its intricate rhythms and patterns. Its beauty is peaceful and refreshing, and I find that the more I look, the more I see the divine intention of creation. Each new day brings hope for the future. My work lets me celebrate that.
I love this quote by John Muir: “This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”
Art Notes: What’s the biggest challenge you see beginning oils students facing? What advice do you give them?
In my experience as a teacher, the biggest challenge for beginning painters is fear … fear of the unknown, which leads to fear of failure. They often get so caught up in trying to do it “right” and avoid “mistakes” that they hold back from experimenting. In reality, the best learning comes from trial and error (especially error) because it leads to discovery.
My advice is to set some goals to break that fear… to make the unknown, known. Find practices that will train the mindtoward process andaway from perfection. Personal challenges might include 1) setting a “quantity” goal (so many paintings in a certain amount of time) and then scheduling it in, 2) choosing a “subject” goal (trees, clouds, flowers) and narrowing the focus, or 3) studying art theory (color, value, perspective) and painting studies for the sole purpose of learning.
The point is to become so familiar with the process that we remove the mystery. When we remove the mystery, we remove the fear.
Art Notes: Where do you do your thinking? What does that look like?
I do my best thinking when I have long stretches of uninterrupted time, away from outside influences. This is usually in my home studio, or out on a walk in the neighborhood. As an easily distracted extrovert, I’ve had to learn how to set aside “margin time” in my schedule, in order to preserve space for evolving ideas.
My thought process takes a number of forms. When I am starting a series or planning a new body of work, I usually begin with a list of ideas. I don’t edit the ideas at this point; all are equal and all go on the list. Then I start to look for commonalities … ideas are grouped and prioritized (or crossed off), and themes begin to emerge. This is when I start feeling a sense of direction.
With some projects, my mental processing requires a “marinating” stage. I find that if I allow myself to “come and go” from an idea, my mind keeps working subconsciously. Often, the idea crystallizes when I am busy with another task.
Art Notes: Why is planning important? What does it give you in the painting process that you wouldn’t have without it?
I am a huge advocate of making a plan, and working the plan. As in any job, planning gives me better efficiency with my time and energy, and it keeps me on track with my vision. Most importantly, planning allows me to accomplish my goals, large and small, from finishing a single painting to hanging an entire show or running an art business.
Planning a single painting begins the minute I get inspiration for a certain view or motif. With the landscape, we always have 360 degrees to choose from, so selection and cropping the scene is mandatory. Preliminary sketches allow me to determine how I want to capture the subject, what to include and what to leave out. Once I commit to a composition, I constrain myself to that design.
I also have a general strategy for building a painting: finding value planes, working dark to light and thin to thick, and saving the highlights until the very end. But as any painter knows, every scene is different and presents its own set of challenges. It is important to analyze each situation individually, and be ready to make adjustments without losing sight of the end goal. (And always leave room for “happy accidents”!)
Art Notes: How do you approach color? Do you use only local color, or do you change the color to make a better painting? How?
I approach color mostly as value and temperature. While local color is certainly part of the equation, I am always asking, “What is that local color in shadow? What is it in light? What is it in the reflections?” The answers to these questions tell me how much I need to push and/or change the local color, in order to create the illusion of form and depth. Local color alone will look flat, and that is not what I am going for.
Occasionally, I do change the color emphasis to make a better painting, but I am usually enhancing something that is already there. I avoid adding random color. For example, I might play up the pink soil under some very green grass, or enlarge a yellow mist on the horizon of an otherwise blue sky. By choosing an existing hue for drama and richness, I can make changes without disrupting the color harmony of the scene.
Art Notes: What does your photo reference need to have? What doesn’t it need to have?
When I am out painting en plein air or hiking, I take lots of reference photos. I use them to paint a scene larger in the studio, or to paint an angle or view that might have been inaccessible to my easel in the field (too much sun, angled terrain, etc.). Over the years I have learned what kind of photos work best for me.
What photo references need (I take several of each scene I am interested in):
Multiple angles — additional angles to supplement the main idea.
Context — additional wider angles for cropping options.
Lighting variety — shoot sky plane separately to capture color (avoid wash-out).
Well-defined shapes and layers — elements needed for structuring the landscape.
To be my own — always best to paint something I have seen and photographed myself.
What photo references do NOT need:
Special camera — my phone camera gets all the info I need.
Perfection — my goal is to interpret the scene with paint, not with photography.
Anomaly — nature’s oddities do not translate well in paint (leave to photographers).
Art Notes: What are you thinking through when you’re composing a scene? What does a painting need to have on a compositional level to be a strong painting?
Most strong compositions have an obvious, well-placed focal point. When I compose a scene, the placement of that focal point is my first concern. After that, everything else is subordinate and expendable. Although a scene may inspire me, I never want to be a slave to copying it tree for tree, or bush for bush, because that doesn’t always make the best composition.
We have to make choices that will enhance the painting. I may choose to include (or invent) directional lines within the scene to move the viewer’s eye to my focal point, or to add elements that will hold it there. I take full liberty to move (or remove) components, or to change their scale as needed. It takes practice and confidence to tamper with what nature provides, but doing it makes a big difference in the power and effectiveness of a painting.